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Does Naturopathy have a place in Integrated Medicine?

by Dr Brian Isbell(more info)

listed in naturopathy, originally published in issue 48 - January 2000

What is Naturopathy?

One of the difficulties in trying to identify what naturopaths are is that as practitioners they use a wide variety of different therapies and some of these (e.g. herbs, nutritional supplements, bodywork) are not intrinsically naturopathic. What makes the naturopathic approach distinctive is that it is founded on the belief in the power of the body to heal itself.

Naturopathy (also known as 'natural medicine' or 'nature cure') aims to maintain health by supporting and stimulating the vis medicatrix naturae (the healing power of nature). Rather than being a specific therapy, naturopathy is an holistic approach that stresses the importance of health maintenance, disease prevention as well as patient education.

Naturopathy shares principles with some of the ancient holistic health systems such as Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine.

Hippocrates in the 5th century BC stated that health may be maintained by a balance of rest, exercise, plain food in moderation and cures that are as natural as possible. The term naturopathy was used for the first time in the 19th century. During this period systems of 'nature cures' were developed both in the USA and in Europe and included the use of plain nutritious foods, hydrotherapy, fresh air, sunlight and exercise.

Naturopathy in the UK is based on the principle that for health the correct nutrients, adequate rest and relaxation, exercise, fresh air, clean water and sunlight are necessary. Many naturopaths will therefore use a variety of treatments including dietary advice in some cases, including nutritional supplements, detoxification methods, bodywork (such as massage or osteopathy), hydrotherapy, counselling and lifestyle advice. Naturopaths may use herbs and homoeopathic remedies and in some cases may also be trained in acupuncture. Naturopaths who have received their training in the USA or Australia are likely to be eclectic practitioners utilising a wide range of natural therapies to stimulate the body's ability to heal itself. Naturopaths will however tailor the treatment methods and programme to the unique requirements of the patient.

Medical Opinion of Naturopathy

In the early part of this century naturopaths pioneered the use of high fibre and low fat diets. This was contrary to medical opinion at that time which also considered that naturopaths supporting such approaches were cranks and quacks. Times have changed; doctors now accept that stress management and exercise are also important to health. The endorsement of the value of naturopathic approaches from research as well as the proven value of bodywork, (osteopathy and chiropractic) has lead to a growing interest in naturopathy, especially for what it could offer in an integrated health care setting.

Whilst many of the principles of naturopathy have found acceptance in conventional medicine, in practice doctors are not usually in a position to teach their patients these fundamental principles. However, the value of naturopathic approaches is being increasingly recognised in the treatment of chronic diseases.

Naturopathy in Integrated Medicine

Naturopaths have much to offer in integrated medicine, particularly in the treatment of degenerative and chronic conditions such as arthritis, asthma, fatigue, depression, gastro-intestinal as well as skin conditions. Research in the USA has indicated that naturopathy can be an effective alternative to antibiotics, antiviral agents and surgery for some chronic conditions. The accumulation of research evidence on the effectiveness of naturopathic approaches has lead to some medical practices employing naturopaths as part of a health care team. Although the therapist may be primarily employed as an osteopath or homoeopath or acupuncturist, the value of the naturopathic approach is rapidly recognised. The influence of a naturopath within the health care team can be a valuable catalyst strengthening an holistic approach to treatment. Four basic principles of naturopathy provide a valuable focus for attention in treatment:

  • The importance of considering the individual patient as unique;
  • It is more important to identify the cause(s) of the condition than treat the symptoms;
  • The individual has the power to heal themselves;
  • The whole person and not just the area affected needs to be treated.

Naturopaths may therefore have a role in integrated medicine as educators, with skills and time to teach patients self-help methods. How this time is funded is a concern for practice managers but the current costs of managing chronic conditions are well recognised.

From my own experience as a naturopath in a multi- disciplinary general practice there is much to be learned from working within a primary health care setting. Within my private practice, maintaining the naturopathic approach is far easier than when faced with the challenges of working in a primary health care team in a busy central London general practice. Being a naturopath in such a setting has led to a mutual understanding in which other health care professionals explore holistic approaches while naturopaths become more appreciative of the difficulties faced in primary health care. The development of teams of health care professionals in which the strengths and limitations of each therapist are recognised by all, will lead to the integrated medicine provision required for a healthier nation.


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About Dr Brian Isbell

Brian Isbell PhD BSc DO MRN is the Head of the Department of Chinese Medicine and Complementary Therapies in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Westminster. The current degree Scheme is the largest portfolio of complementary medicine courses in Europe.

Brian is an Osteopath, Naturopath and Cranial Therapist and has worked within the NHS and the University of Westminster's multidisciplinary Polyclinic for several years. Brian has taught biomedical sciences and complementary medicine for over 30 years. He may be contacted via

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